By Simon Otjes (University of Groningen)
The Dutch elections were on March 15, 2017. 225 days, later a government was formed. That was the longest government formation period in the Netherlands. So why did the talks last so long? What did the talks result in? And will the coalition last?
Longest Formation Talks in Dutch History
There are a number of reasons why the 2017 coalition formation talks took so long. First, the fractionalization: traditionally the Netherlands had two large parties, one on the centre-left and and one the centre-right. Since 1977 cabinets consisted out of two or three parties. In the 2017 elections, the political landscape was flattened. The largest party, the centre-right Liberal Party of the governing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, won only 33 seats out of 150 seats. There are five mid-sized parties in the Dutch parliament. Any majority coalition would need to consist out of at least four parties, which all had to be satisfied by the outcome.
A second factor was party political polarization on a number of dimensions. In the 2017 election campaign a number of issues was hotly debated: not only economic issues that divide the classical economic left and economic right, but also ‘new’ cultural issues, related to globalization, such as immigration, where there was strong polarization by the right-wing populist Freedom Party. ‘Old’ cultural issues, also the question of euthanasia also returned to the agenda as the Health minister proposed a further liberalization of the Dutch rules on assisted suicide. Any coalition would consist out of parties that disagreed vehemently on these issues. This was further complicated by exclusions based on these dimensions. The Socialist Party barred cooperation with the Liberal Party over their economic differences. All larger parties, including the Liberal Party, had announced that they would not cooperate with the Freedom Party, after Geert Wilders made discriminatory statements against Muslims. The Labour Party had announced that it would not enter government after its resounding electoral loss. The options that were still open were limited and all consisted out of parties that disagreed strongly on at least one of these dimensions.
A third factor that potentially led to long coalition formation process was the fact that this was the second process under a new procedure of cabinet formation. Until 2012, the Head of State was involved in the process but in 2012 parliament took the lead. In earlier cabinet formation talks, the Queen could intervene to break a stalemate. That option was not available now.
The fourth factor, ironically, was that there was no sense of urgency urgency. The last cabinet was formed in record time (for Dutch standards) of one and a half months in 2012 when the Netherlands was in dire economic straits and the Eurozone was undergoing a sovereign debt crisis. Without such a crisis, the coalition talks could go on for a long time without risk. Out of the seven-and-a-half months of talks, the negotiators went on holiday for more than a month.
The Motor Bloc searches for Side Car
Two possible coalitions were studied in-depth. The first was a coalition of the Liberal Party, the Christian-Democratic Appeal, the social-liberal Democrats 66 and the GreenLeft. The second option traded the GreenLeft for the ChristianUnion.
The option with the GreenLeft was studied first. These talks were led by the Liberal Health minister Edith Schippers. The talks broke down over the issue of immigration. The GreenLeft opposed the deal the European Union had struck a deal with Turkey to take back refugees. The Liberal Party and the Christian-Democrats wanted to extend those deals to other countries.
The Liberal Party, the Christian-Democrats and D66 search for a fourth party to join their ‘motor bloc’. Exploratory talks with the social-democratic Labour Party, the Socialist Party and the Christian-social ChristianUnion all proved unproductive. The Labour Party declined to enter a government after loosing three-quarters of their seats in the elections, the Socialist Party did not want to cooperate with a bloc of economically right-wing parties and the ChristianUnion and D66 announced after one afternoon of talks that their differences on ‘old’ cultural issues, such as euthanasia and gay rights, was too large. A new informateur was appointed, the former vice-president of the Council of State, social-democrat Herman Tjeenk Willink. He reinitiated talks with the GreenLeft. The talks broke down a second time on the exact migration deals.
The only option that was left was a coalition of the Liberal Party, the Christian-Democrats, D66 and the ChristianUnion. This cabinet had only 76 out of 150 seats in the House and 38 out of 75 seats in the Senate. Yet it was the only option available where parties did not exclude cooperating with each other. A new informateur was found, the former Liberal minister of Finance, Gerrit Zalm. He led talks that lasted for three-and-a-half months, which occurred under strict radio silence. On many economic, cultural and environmental issue the more left-wing parties ChristianUnion and Democrats 66 were at odds with the more right-wing Christian-Democrats and Liberals. On moral issues, however, D66 and VVD took more libertarian positions than CU and CDA.
A centre-right agreement
The talks were successful and resulted in an extensive coalition agreement that balanced the preferences of the different parties. After years of austerity, the cabinet decided to invest in the public sector: in police and defense, education and healthcare. The coalition agreed on a tax reform package: the Dutch tax system would be simplified. The four-tier income tax system would be replaced by a flat-tax system ‘plus’ with only two tiers, which involved a major reduction in taxes for families; in order to ensure that income differences would not increase, the mortgage deduction for home-owners would be reduced even further. The VAT would be raised while corporate taxes would be reduced. The cabinet committed itself to reaching the Dutch targets of the Paris Climate agreement by closing coal plants, increasing clean energy production, imposing new taxes for cargo transport and investing heavily in carbon storage. The coalition agreed on working in the European context to strike more deals like the one with Turkey and restrictive immigration policy, while at the same time increasing spending on foreign aid. No further steps would be taken by the cabinet to extend the rules on euthanasia, but the liberal policies on soft-drugs use would be complemented by government production of soft-drugs. The new Dutch referendum law would be abolished, while mayors would become directly elected.
A larger cabinet
For the final part of the coalition formation talks, the prospective Prime-Minister would be appointed formateur and he held formal talks with the prospective ministers. In order allow the smallest parties in the cabinet to have two ministers but still reflect the differences in party strength in the cabinet, sixteen ministers were deemed necessary. In the previous Rutte II cabinet, thirteen ministers was deemed sufficient. In addition to the ChristianUnion’s two ministers, DA and D66, which have the same number of seats in parliament, would be given four ministers; and the VVD took six, including the Prime Minister. To allow for this increase in ministerial positions, five ministries would be led by two ministers: justice, foreign affairs, economic affairs, healthcare and education.
This is the first four-party coalition in forty years in the Netherlands. The last four party coalition, the cabinet-De Jong, likewise was a centre-right cabinet of Christian-democrats and Liberals. It finished its four-year term in a time of major social change and economic upheaval. The chances of this coalition finishing its full-term depend on the provincial elections of 2019. In this election the Senate will also be re-elected. The coalition has a one-seat majority in the Senate. If the cabinet loses its majority, it must develop a cooperative relationship with parties of the opposition. Out of the parties that were most willing to do so in the previous parliament, two (D66 and CU) have now joined the coalition. If no such cooperation can be found, the cabinet’s life may be short.
Photo source: https://www.ft.com/content/eef4ff4e-adb9-11e7-aab9-abaa44b1e130